The 19th Wife, or Why Conjugal Subjugation is Bad

Monday, April 25, 2011

OK, I'll admit it-I have a morbid fascination with the idea of Mormon polygamy.  It's not quite risen to the point that I am watching Sister Wives on TLC, but it's close.  I've decided it's similar to the reason rubberneckers slow down at an accident scene, or people rush out to see the results of some natural disaster.  Somehow you just get sucked into the horror and drama of it all.  I also have a strange fascination with Mormonism in general.  As an atheist most religious belief stretches the bounds of my reason, but Mormonism in particular (along with Scientology) surprise me.  Most faith traditions at least have thousands of years of cultural weight behind them.  I have a hard time seeing how Mormonism started, however, given that it was only founded in the mid-1800s.  I mean, if Joseph Smith were a "prophet" today, and claimed that he spoke with the angel Moroni and that he found golden plates with the words of God on them, but then lost them again, the psychiatric community would call him schizophrenic.  I don't mean to sound disrespectful-I feel strongly that everyone has the right to their own religious beliefs.  I'm just making an observation. 

At any rate, after reading a book about the founding of Mormonism, I've wanted to read more about the early history of the church.  In his novel, The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff uses the real-life story of Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young's many wives, as the frame for his modern day tale of polygamous cults and murder.  The books goes back and forth between "historical" documents written by Ann Eliza and her father, and the story of Jordan Scott, a young man excommunicated from a Mormon offshoot, the Firsts.  The Firsts are a polygamous cult, headed by a man called the Prophet.  The Firsts believe that the Mormon church was wrong to abolish the practice of "celestial marraige", as polygamy was called.  They have dedicated themselves to continuing what they see as God's true wish in their desert town of Mesadale.  Jordan's mother, the 19th wife of one of the elders, is accused of killing him in a fit of jealousy.  After swearing he would never return to Mesadale, he agrees to visit his mother in jail, and becomes convinced she did not commit the crime.  Working with his mother's lawyer and some other ex-Firsts, he investigates what really happened.

Ebershoff obviously did a lot of research in preparation of writing The 19th Wife.  Ann Eliza Young was a real person, and she did write a memoir of her time as a Mormon.  While Ebershoff is clear that the book is a fictional account, there is a lot of factual information.  I read several parts of the books with my laptop close by, so that I could check the factual nature of the story.  The Firsts are surely modeled after the Fundamentalist Church of Later-Day Saints, the polygamist cult headed by the notorious Warren Jeffs. Jordan's character and the other former Firsters in the book describe many of the conditions that The FLDS has been accused of.  Aside from the many wives of the men, there were accusations of welfare fraud, child abuse, child sexual abuse, rape, and the forcible marriage of underage girls to much older men.  While there are those that argue that plural marriage is a religious practice that should be respected when entered into by consenting adults, I think that we've seen enough evidence in a variety of cultures that in reality plural marriage mostly serves to concentrate power in the males of the group, and leave the women very little control over their lives.


  1. Fascinating. THat was so fascinating. I purchased this book a while ago but have never read it. It sounds so intereting. Like you, I find it fascinating to think that asomeone who proclaimed to have found the word of God and lost it again was able to found an entire religion that people follow today. Its crazy to think about when you consider that if someone said that today, at the most you might get a handful of people believe them and maybe get a cult going - but to found an entire worldwide religion off the back of such claims is just incredible. I think I want to read more about this religion now.

  2. Ann Eliza's story really intrigued me but the modern day part of thevstory was not as interesting.


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